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THE MANY SPLENDORS OF SOGOD BAY

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

The Philippines is blessed with many wonderful diving destinations, as right across this archipelago of 7100 islands are countless reefs, shipwrecks and muck sites. Many of these destinations are well known and very popular with visiting divers, but one of the country’s lesser known delights is Sogod Bay.

 

Located at the southern end of Leyte, Sogod Bay is a large body of water fringed with amazing dive sites. Diving in this large bay is centred around the small town of Padre Burgos, where a handful of dive resorts are located, including the brilliant Sogod Bay Scuba Resort.

 

Owned and operated by ex-pat Aussie Phil McQuire, Sogod Bay Scuba Resort is located on a pretty beach and has lovely coral reefs on its doorstep. The resort has a range of accommodation on offer, and has a wonderful restaurant and professional dive centre managed by local dive instructor Pedro Batestil. They operate two traditional style banka dive boats, and offer daily boat and shore dives to the fabulous dive sites around the bay.

 

We first visited Sogod Bay a decade ago when it was a little known destination, and it seems that things haven’t changed much as few divers still visit this area. This is a bit hard to explain, as the area has wonderful reefs, great muck and also has the largest population of whale sharks in the Philippines.

 

Whale sharks are seen regularly in Sogod Bay from November to May, and on our last visit we snorkelled with four of these gentle giants on one unforgettable day. During the whale shark season Sogod Bay Scuba Resort operate special whale shark trips for people to snorkel with the sharks. But whale sharks are only the icing on the cake for this special destination, as the reef and muck diving can be enjoyed at any time of the year.

 

REEF DIVING

The reef diving at Sogod Bay is simply magic as many of the popular dive sites are protected as marine reserves. We enjoyed reef dives on both sides of the bay and found that some of the best sites are located right in front of the resort. Not many dive resorts have house reefs as good as the one at Sogod Bay Scuba Resort. Barely a dozen steps from the dive shop you can enter the water and explore a beautiful coral reef at Max’s Climax.

 

This reef slopes from the shallows to 15m and then drops into deep water. The coral outcrops in the shallows are home to turtles, sea snakes, nudibranchs, moray eels and a wide variety of reef fish, including frogfish. On the drop-off are lovely soft corals, gorgonians, sea whips and barrel sponges, while pelagic fish, and the odd whale shark cruising by. The visibility here, and throughout the bay, is typically 15m to 30m.

 

This house reef is also a spectacular night dive, as emerging from the coral, sand and rubble is a great collection of critters. At night you will see basket stars, brittle stars, crabs, shrimps, octopus, cuttlefish, morays, nudibranchs, snake eels, cockatoo waspfish and numerous shells.

 

Also in walking distance of the dive centre, but generally done as a boat dive, are Bulawarte and Voltaire’s Rock. These are also wall dives with wonderful corals and fish, and a good place to see pygmy seahorses.

 

Numerous reef dives are found north and south of the resort. Another wonderful wall dive is found at Bunga Bend. While the wall is very colourful, the best part of this dive is the coral gardens in the shallows, where we saw sea snakes, frogfish and some very large nudibranchs. Casa Blanca is another lovely site, but being further in the bay it is a mix of reef and muck. Exploring this site we saw pipefish, morays, nudibranchs, gobies and frogfish. Benit Reef is a similar site nearby where we encountered cuttlefish, trevally, batfish, nudibranchs and a turtle.

 

On the other side of the bay we explored several wonderful reefs, with our favourite being Santa Paz. At this site you can explore a wall, a pinnacle or a muck site, or all three. The wall is covered in corals and sponges, but the pinnacle is a magnet for fish life. This pinnacle rises from 45m to 25m and is covered in black coral trees, schools of snapper and is also a great place to find nudibranchs. At the end of the dive we spent time in the adjacent sandy bay and found box crabs, razorfish, stingrays, nudibranchs, oriental sea robins and commensal shrimps.

 

Olly’s Wall is another excellent wall dive, with beautiful gorgonians, sea whips and soft corals. But the most famous dive site in this part of the bay is the amazing Napantao. A whale shark had been seen at this site the day before we dived it, and we could have easily missed seeing one of these giant sharks as we were too busy marvelling at all the fish and colourful corals. This magic wall dive is a marine park and swarms with dense schools of fairy basslets and fusiliers. But cruising the wall are also pelagic fish, turtles and sea snakes.

 

MUCK DIVING

Many of the reef dives in Sogod Bay also have a component of muck. But we also explored two very mucky sites that are a haven for critters. Little Lembeh is a sandy slope that looks very similar to sites at the famous Indonesian muck destination. We explored this site over three dives and photographed pipefish, sea moths, jawfish, seahorses, gobies, mantis shrimps, soles, crabs, shrimps, cuttlefish and octopus. Numerous sea urchins inhabit the sandy bottom, and many of the fire urchins are home to Coleman shrimps and zebra crabs. We also closely inspected several black coral trees at the site and found spindle cowries and a sawblade shrimp. Two of the divers in our group had an unexpected encounter at Little Lembeh when a small whale shark cruised around them. Not what you generally expect on a muck dive.

 

The other muck site we dived could only be explored at night, as the Padre Burgos Pier is closed to divers during the day and only open for diving on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But this is one dive you don’t want to miss at Sogod Bay, as it is one of the best night dives in Asia.

 

The pier is a bit of a junk pile, littered with rubbish, and often has murky water in the shallows. But the water under the pier is generally clear and home to the most astonishing range of critters you will see anywhere. The pier is only 50m long and 8m deep, but each pylon is covered in beautiful sponges, soft corals and gorgonians. However, these colourful corals are easily ignored as you will be too busy marvelling at the snake eels, stargazers, seahorses, pipefish, moray eels, mantis shrimps, cuttlefish, octopus, star stars, brittle stars, sea snakes, lionfish, scorpionfish, cockatoo waspfish, sea moths, nudibranchs, shells and many other species. Frogfish are a feature of the site, and not just common species like the warty, giant and painted frogfish, but also rare species like the freckled frogfish. Every dive we did at Padre Burgos Pier was absolutely mind-blowing.

 

Sogod Bay is easily one of our favourite destinations in the Philippines, and it will only be a matter of time before this wonderful location lures us back for another visit.

 

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